The sale of this weaponry was originally arranged in 2007, but was stymied by international outcry. Last summer, while nuclear negotiations were still ongoing between Iran and the P5+1 group of nations, Moscow declared that it would be moving forward with the agreement before a final nuclear deal was concluded. This generated mixed reactions from the other parties to the talks, but also apparently enough criticism to hold the Russians back from actually transferring any of the missiles. The continued delays prompted Iran to file suit soon after the conclusion of the nuclear talks.
The Xinhua article suggests that the two parties are now struggling to resolve the issue, with each hoping for the other to move first – Iran by dropping the lawsuit and Russia by delivering its first shipment of missiles. This suggests that the way forward may not be as clear cut as Rogozin’s remarks imply. And indeed, foreign policy analysts have recently tended to indicate that the same is true for overall relations between the two countries.
This perspective was expressed on Friday, for instance, by Bloomberg. The newspaper’s analysis concluded Moscow and Tehran are mutually interested in deepening their cooperative relationship, but that this project is seriously strained in practice. Other analysts have long been arguing that the two governments might have divergent interests, especially with respect to their mutual involvement in Syria, where both are backing the presidency of Bashar al-Assad, albeit for slightly different reasons.
Representatives of the Obama administration and other Western policymakers have shown an interest in exploiting this possible divergence in order to encourage one or both of the Assad-allied countries to accept the end of that dictatorship and the establishment of a transitional government that could help bring an end to the five year-long Syrian Civil War.
Arguably lending legitimacy to these plans, Bloomberg reports that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s latest remarks on the Assad regime have clearly indicated a more neutral position than has been demonstrated in the past.
Repeating Iranian talking points, the Russian minister declared that the future of the Syrian government must be in the hands of that nation’s people. But he went well beyond Iranian commentary on the topic by stating explicitly that Russia takes no position either for or against Assad’s continued rule. Leading Iranian officials, by contrast, have said that they are unwilling to entertain the possibility of any other leader being installed in Assad’s place.
The divide between the two perspectives was made even clearer by a report in the Villages Sun Times, which reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted, “We don’t believe that Assad himself has the ability to lead the future Syria.”
Furthermore, Putin declared that Moscow supports all groups fighting against ISIL, even those that are also part of the rebellion against the Assad regime. This possibly represents a departure from Moscow’s previous policies. Russian air support inside Syria was reportedly motivated by visits from Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani and other Iranian officials. Soon after it began, Moscow faced criticism for directing almost all of its air strikes against non-ISIL rebels. This may have signified a close alignment of Iranian and Russian goals, which have since diverged.
Nonetheless, Bloomberg’s observation of mutual desire for Iranian-Russian collaboration is still relevant. Indeed, Putin’s remarks came in the midst of a visit to Tehran, where the Russian president reportedly attempted to reinforce both the practical and ideological underpinnings for an alliance with Iran in other areas. The Villages Sun Times reports, for instance, that he insisted that the Russian economy is continuing to recover. Bloomberg observes that the weakness of the Russian economy and the slow pass of Russian oil exports have given Iran diminished incentive to continue pursuing a relationship with Moscow.
Putin also used his Tehran visit to reiterate mutual Russian-Iranian antagonism against the US, the West in general, and Turkey. The latter of these recently made incursions into Iraq to participate in the fight against ISIL, leading Iran’s proxies inside of Iraqi territory to threaten attacks against Turkish forces if they do not withdraw. Russia took a similarly hard line, with Putin saying, “We find it hard if not impossible to come to an agreement with the current leadership of Turkey.”
For both Russia and Iran, the intervention of other foreign powers into civil wars in Syria and Iraq provide further pretext for maintaining their own presence in those countries. Despite Moscow’s uncertainty about the future of Assad, Putin has vowed that the Russian military will keep up the fight in Syria for as long as the Syrian army does so. Such assurances promise to reinforce Iran’s influence there by proxy, but if the alliance between the two countries should happen to collapse, Russia could turn into a competitor and a threat instead.
This is especially true in light of recent reports that the Iranian power apparatus inside of Syria is shifting, with combat forces from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps withdrawing in favor of a return to a more advisory role. While the notion of a large-scale drawdown has been disputed by various media sources, it was reinforced with specific numbers by the Times of Israel on Friday.
That report indicates that only 700 to 800 IRGC fighters remain, compared to 2,000 as of three months ago. The apparent shift has generally been explained in part as a response to much greater Iranian sacrifice that has resulted from trying to keep an active hand in the fight. Some reports indicate that several dozen members of the IRGC have been killed in Syria, and it is certainly true that the paramilitary group has lost at least six high-ranking officers.
Meanwhile, the Times of Israel adds that Iran’s Lebanese Shiite proxy, Hezbollah has suffered much more from its participation in the civil war, losing between 1,300 and 1,500 lives, with 5,000 more injuries contributing to an approximately one-third loss of the group’s fighting force.
This situation alone has reportedly led Hezbollah to publicly express concerns that the Assad regime may not be salvageable. And these concerns may not even factor in the very recent Russian comments that point to a possible loss of Russia’s formerly dependable support in the fight to preserve the Syrian dictator.